We see donation appeals everywhere these days - to help the people in Japan, to help the people in Darfur, to help the people in Haiti. What influences our decision to give? An interesting study comes from British psychologists, who analyzed how individuals respond to donation appeals in the wake of man-made disasters - like war - versus natural disasters. The authors around Hanna Zagefka from Royal Holloway University in London found that natural disasters elicit more donations than those caused by people. Their explanation: people tend to assign some blame to the victims of man-made disaster, while they blame no one for being overrun by a Tsunami.
In the study, the researchers presented participants with a fictitious disaster, a famine, and told part of the participants that the famine was caused by a draught. The other participants were told that an armed conflict had caused the famine. Respondents were more willing to give money to the the victims of the draught than to those of conflict. The authors conclude that we tend to assign some of the blame for conflict to those who suffer from it. We do so because we believe, at some level, that the world is a just place where innocents do not suffer, and if somebody suffers, it might be partly their fault.
Really? Do I blame a starving child for a war that somebody else started? Do I blame a raped woman for "attracting" violent soldiers? If you see pictures of victims of an armed conflict, do you blame them? Research suggests that pictures influence our perception of somebody's plight very strongly. That leads me to suggest another, alternative or perhaps complementary, explanation: media representation of disaster. Most of what we know about famines, Tsunamis, earthquakes, and wars happening elsewhere we know from the media. There are studies that suggest a link between media reporting of disaster and amount of donations. For instance, in our book Public Sentinel: News Media and Governance Reform Douglas van Belle shows that every story about a disaster in the New York Times significantly increases the amount of aid to the country in question.
To explain individual level effects, we can turn to Bella Mody's book The Geopolitics of Representation in Foreign News. She argues that media representation influences people's perception of the urgency of a disaster. Media can activate attention and sympathy by framing disaster in specific ways. If the media present victims of armed conflict as being partly to blame for their fate, people will tend to see it that way. If, however, there is a focus on victims as being blameless, it should not reduce people's sympathies.
It is a fact, however, that there are fewer donations for, say, the victims in Darfur than there were for the victims of the 2004 Tsunami. The reason, Mody implies, is not that we blame the people in Darfur for their plight, but that the media is very hesitant to pick up the conflict. Mody argues that the media are restricted by their national frameworks - geopolitical history, national interest, media ownership, and audience - in their reporting and that is why Darfur gets less attention than the Tsunami got. If the media pays less attention, everybody pays less attention, including international aid organizations and your neighbor's checkbook.
There are, of course, many factors that influence individual donations. I would argue, though, that it might all start with the media - because someone has to tell us that there is a disaster to begin with, and then tell us whether that famine was caused by a draught or by a war.
Picture: Flickr user Mindful One